TBIs may be moving out of the spotlight, but not off the DoD's radar

Elizabeth Howe
February 21, 2020 - 11:52 am
Marines with combined anti-armor team conduct weapon familiarization training June 3 at the North Training Area at Combined Arms Training Center Camp Fuji

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It's been two weeks since the number of traumatic brain injuries from the Jan. 8 Iranian missile strike last increased. Most of those troops have since returned to duty, and the issue of traumatic brain injuries has started to move out of the media spotlight. But the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs are still paying attention.

Shortly after the injuries were first reported, Trump described them as "headaches" and said they were "not serious." Trump stood by that assessment even after the number of injuries exceeded 100.

"I saw the missiles. We saw them going...They landed in a way that they didn't hit anybody," Trump told Fox. "And then a couple of weeks later I started hearing about people having to do with trauma, head trauma. That exists. But it's, you know, I viewed it a little bit differently than most, and I won't be changing my mind on that."

Trump 'won't be changing his mind' on TBIs

Doctor David Cifu,  the chair of Virginia Commonwealth University's Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and a senior TBI specialist for VA, says this has led people to believe inaccuracies about TBIs. 

"I've been doing this 30-plus years, and to me, it's pretty straightforward...But you just heard Trump say that there's nothing wrong with them. People believe that there's nothing wrong with these people," said Doctor David Cifu. 

According to Cifu, the fact the country's attention was on TBIs bodes well for the service members injured in the Iranian attack — they are receiving diagnoses and treatment whereas most TBI sufferers do not. 

Pentagon now says 109 troops diagnosed with TBIs from Iran missile strike

"They're being treated right away in a setting where people know what they're doing, where people are supporting their recovery. They have an amazingly high chance — over 98 percent — of going back to full recovery and staying in the military if they wish," Cifu said. "In the military and VA cohort, we see that about a third of people still have symptoms from a TBI because they're not being diagnosed early and treated."

"We know a lot about TBIs," Cifu said. "But there's always more we can know."

The DoD and VA recently granted Dr. Cifu and a team at VCU the Long-Term Impact of Military-Relevant Brain Injury Consortium or LIMBIC grant — $50 million for five years of research on exactly how to handle TBIs. With 1,700 participants, it will be the largest military brain injury consortium in the world. 

"One in five of our troops who went to Iraq and Afghanistan and saw combat in war had one or more concussions," Cifu said. "Now, these people are getting MRIs, they're getting their blood drawn for biomarkers, they're getting their saliva drawn, they're getting their eyes tracked by a computer, they're standing on computerized balance boards. We're looking at all this stuff and what we're going to hopefully learn a lot in the next five to 10 years. 

"The brain doesn't know how it was injured, it was just injured," Cifu added. "If you don't treat it people are always going to get worse."

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